Today’s university students are Ontario’s future makers, drivers of change. They are pushing beyond the walls of the university classroom and making a difference on their campuses, in their communities, and throughout the province.
In many cases, their efforts reach far and wide, helping to effect real and positive impacts in the lives of those around them. From addressing food sustainability in northern Ontario to raising awareness of invasive species in southwestern Ontario, university students are partnering across the province to help find creative solutions to society’s big challenges.
But there are also many examples where Ontario’s university students have mobilized in order to advocate around an issue much closer to home – one example is the way in which students are advocating for supports for their own mental health and for the mental health of their peers. In fact, the student impact around mental health support is undeniable.
Providing effective mental health resources for university and college students is an important issue on post-secondary campuses today. Now more than ever, students who are coping with mental health issues are recognizing the importance of seeking help, and their peers are speaking up on their behalf.
From programs and services on our campuses to student-led activities, our universities continue to work to support our students and these important mental health initiatives.
Through their work, we have seen students move the needle by becoming the ambassadors their peers need and innovating new products and services to support mental health.
Many of these activities are available across every institution to help students reduce stress, including peer health education outreach teams, wellness weeks, and in-house residence programs, among others.
More and more students are also participating in peer-to-peer counselling services. These types of services have not only reduced some of the common barriers and feelings of intimidation when seeking support, but they’re bridging the gap between the student and the help they need. Peer counsellors receive on-campus training, sometimes through work-study programs, to ensure that they are prepared, equipped, and capable to support others and address crisis situations. In some cases, the peer counsellor themselves has prior experience using mental health services and is able to form deeper connections with students, leading to a stronger support system where both sides feel a sense of empowerment.
Student ambassadors are helping raise awareness around mental health, reduce stigma, prevent issues from reaching a crisis point, and connect peers with the help they need. But advocacy around student mental health does not rest solely on the shoulders of students. While gains have been made when it comes to treating mental illness, and ensuring that those diagnosed can get the support they need to pursue their ambitions, more can and needs to be done to put effective services in place that respond to a broad and complex range of issues. We all have a role to play.
The path forward for mental health advocacy lies in partnerships and the coming together of many voices to make sure that those who need help can access the services they seek. At the Council of Ontario Universities, we value the opportunity to collaborate with our students and partners – and working together to address student mental health is no exception. In 2017, Ontario’s universities, colleges and student groups came together to jointly advocate for student mental health, co-writing In It Together – a report that identifies priorities and recommendations to guide and strengthen the delivery of mental health services for post-secondary students across the province.
The report gave rise to a larger In It Together advocacy campaign that continues to bring attention to the need for a comprehensive, holistic approach to mental health, drawing on government, educators, health-care providers, and local organizations – the whole community.Through their work, we have seen students move the needle by becoming the ambassadors their peers need and innovating new products and services to support mental health. - @COUPresident Click To Tweet
This fall marks two years since this initiative began. The In it Together report and joint advocacy campaign launched at a time when post-secondary institutions found themselves at the frontline of mental health issues. In many cases, we still are.
For a number of students, the transition from secondary school to post-secondary studies can be stressful, where they are faced with mounting pressures to succeed and greater workloads, coupled with the added responsibilities of living on their own – a first for many.
Those with identified mental health needs no longer have automatic access to the types of supports and services that were provided to them in high school. If they are no longer living at home, these students often do not have access to the types of primary health-care services that would best address their issues.
For others, mental health issues are only just starting to manifest, leaving them particularly vulnerable. Seventy-five per cent of mental health issues begin before the age of 25, during a time when many are arriving on post-secondary campuses.
In fact, the number of students on college and university campuses with identified mental health disabilities more than doubled between 2012 and 2017, and the second most used billing code by on-campus physicians in 2017 was related to mental health.
These realties resonated among universities, colleges, and students groups, sparking the need to come together and advocate for real, positive change around student mental health. By engaging each other and partnering around such an important long-term goal, Ontario’s universities, colleges, and students sparked a joint initiative that was comprehensive and far stronger than anything we could have done individually.
In It Together advocates for curriculum that emphasizes resilience and coping skills that begin in kindergarten and continue through high school, postsecondary life, and into adulthood and the workplace.
It proposes syllabus changes that provide young people with the social, emotional, and practical tools throughout K-12, before they enter post-secondary education. It also encourages culturally diverse counselling and promotes the use of more technology counselling – all free to students, on and off campus.
More than anything, In It Together highlights a need for joint advocacy around student mental health. It taps into an urgency for more hands on deck to create a better future for our young people and ensure their mental health and wellbeing are well supported.
Ultimately, the future of student mental health requires a whole-of-community approach. This is a societal issue with ripple effects that touch everything from health care to the workplace and the economy. It requires the heavy lifting of moving hearts and minds within post-secondary, health care, communities and government to ensure effective services are in place for those who need them.
In our work, we continue to advocate for a whole-of-community approach to mental health where everyone has a role to play, from government and community stakeholders to post-secondary institutions and their students.
As we saw with In It Together, joint advocacy takes any project or initiative further than one voice. By collaborating and advocating for others, we take care of one another and achieve what might not otherwise be possible.
Through true collaboration and cooperation, the government, post-secondary institutions, student associations, health-care providers, and community organizations can ensure that every student has access to the high-quality mental health supports and services they need.
President and CEO
Council of Ontario Universities
This article was originally featured in the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance magazine, Educated Solutions.